Roaring through Zambia’s breathtaking Batoka Gorge not far from Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwean border, the Zambezi River is a true force of nature. During the low water season, rapids escalate all the way to a frenzied Class VI (which, if you haven’t been rafting before, is some pretty hectic white water) and the river offers some of the best drop pool rafting in the world. I’m not a full-fledged river rat, but my family has dabbled in white water rafting since I was a teenager, tackling some Class IV and V rapids in Washington and even embarking on a 9 day trip through the Grand Canyon. It was all a walk in the park compared to the mighty Zambezi and it’s surging rapids. It’s kind of amazing that I even survived to tell about it..
All the details: Zambezi River white water rafting
Getting there: Fly into Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone, Zambia and have your accommodation organise a transfer for you.
Where to stay: Stay in a pre-erected tent for $25USD per person at the Victoria Falls Waterfront, or opt for one of the more up-scale chalets. The property is situated right on the river, offers beautiful views, an on-site restaurant and bar, several pools, a full travel booking service, and countless other amenities.
Top tips: All the river water (and frequent submersion) makes it impossible to keep sunscreen on during the rafting trip, so wear pants and a long sleeve shirt. It won’t win you any fashion prizes, but I was literally the only person on our boat who didn’t get burnt to a ruby red crisp because some kind soul gave me this same advice!
Following a pre-departure meeting for our overland trip last night where we were introduced to our truck (Pangani), our lovely leader (Rachel), our driver (Sam), and a few of the other travellers that make up our 11 person group, Cal and I wake up bright and early to move out of our pre-erected tent at the Vic Falls Waterfront and into the lockers and tent that will be ours for the next 3 weeks as we drive through Africa. We enjoy a relaxed breakfast with the group, learning a few more names, before heading over to the rafting meeting point at 8am for our safety briefing. We are joined by another Aussie from our group and also the two Australians that we met on our walk back from Zimbabwe yesterday, all excited for a full day on the Zambezi where we will be braving some reportedly intense Class 5 rapids. Despite all the warnings, though, none of us are truly prepared for what is waiting for us in the gorge..
After the briefing, we are given life jackets and helmets, grouped into boats of 6 or 7, and loaded into the trucks to drive to the nearby Batoka Gorge. There’s a steep descent to the river and then we hop into the boat; altogether, it’s us, newlyweds Mia and James from Sutherland (only about 30 min from where we live), Lucas from Brisbane, a father and son from Perth, and our seasoned guide, Boyd. Everyone in the boat has been rafting at least once before, but that does little to prepare us for the first rapid of the day, a Class 5 that flips our entire raft and traps all of us underneath. It’s a near-death experience that absolutely none of us are keen to repeat and honestly sets the morning off on a rather poor note as we all second-guess our choice of activities and intermittently cough up river water.
If nothing else, Rapid 1 was a lesson to the whole boat to paddle harder and keep the raft upright at all costs, so we sail through the next few rapids, not without fear but at least without incident. Many other boats are not as lucky, and since we are the first group to go through each time, we witness many wipe-outs where the entire boat flips or where a few frightened paddlers are chucked across the river.
It’s no surprise that, when given an option of easy, medium, or hard through a rapid that Boyd himself says we only have a 5% chance of staying upright for, Mia and I immediately opt for the easy route. Boyd is determined that our boat will be going through the hard way, with or without us, though, so we take the opportunity to bail into another boat of pansies. James, who also wasn’t interested in drowning, Mia, and I all sail through the rapid without any hiccups, and then look on as our boat follows and people go flying in all directions. All the taunting was worth it to stay inside the boat, especially considering that 5 out of 6 boats flipped.
For Rapid 9, a Class 6 called “Commercial Suicide”, we are all made to get out and walk around (not that I would want to run the rapid anyway) while the guides navigate the rafts through, which is quite an impressive feat. All 8 rafting companies on the Zambezi avoid this rapid in the same way, and actually 6 of the companies even walk around Rapid 7, a pretty terrifying Class 5 that is where most emergency rescues on the river occur, and that we somehow managed to survive despite considerable panicking on my part.
Once across Rapid 9, we hop back into our regular boat for one last rapid before lunch. We are all feeling quite thankful for the opportunity to catch our breaths, but I’m not sure I really even taste the sandwich because I’m still recovering from all the stress of the morning. Morale is somewhat restored after our break, but nothing good lasts long and we find ourselves in the water again on Rapid 11, immediately after lunch. The boat itself stays upright, and Mia and James even manage to stay inside, but the rest of us are thrown into alarmingly turbulent water and I have an even worse near-death experience than during our capsize on Rapid 1. Despite having a life jacket on, the river is pumping so powerfully and the undercurrents are so unpredictable that you don’t bob to the surface very quickly and it’s often impossible to even tell which direction is up. While I’m held under in the swirling water, there’s honestly a moment where I genuinely believe that I will die, but just before I’m about to instinctively take a big gulp of water, my head pops up and I get a little gasp of air before being thrown back under. On the other side of the rapid, we are all coughing and more than a little traumatised as we are hauled back into the boat.
Thankfully, we have no more flips and no more near-drownings for the remaining 10 rapids, but my heart is still racing after being put in my place by the river. At calm stretches, we all hop in the water and float along the river on our backs, but I’m still wary of any white water and won’t even float through one of the small rapids with the guys. Finally, we pass beyond Rapid 21 and pull our boat over to the side, done with our day on the river. We haul our jackets, helmets, and paddles up a steep trail in the side of the gorge to reach the trucks. The hike actually takes about 20 minutes and induces quite a lot of uncomfortable sweating in the direct afternoon sun, but I’m pleased to be out of the water, feeling like I genuinely skirted death today. Once at the top, it’s pretty relieving to throw off the jackets, drink down several Fantas, and start laughing about our crazy day on the Zambezi.
Children in a village near the Zambezi
Our truck ride is considerably longer on the way back to the Waterfront, so I stare out the window as we pass through villages that look exactly as you might expect Zambia to look— women carry overflowing baskets on their heads to thatched-roof huts and little children chase after the truck as the sun sits low in the sky, casting everything in a golden light. Africa is more than a little magical, and sometimes its beauty is overwhelming.
Back at the Waterfront, all the rafters squeeze onto tables and dig into a tasty chicken curry dinner, swapping horror stories over bottles of Mosi (the local beer). After dinner, we all crowd around the bar TV to watch a video from the day. There have been drones and a number of cameramen recording all of the big rapids, so we watch our raft flip and some pretty comical falls out of other boats before hustling back to our truck to meet the driver that will take us to see the Zambian side of Victorian Falls. It’s been an exhausting day full of beautiful scenery and some pretty traumatic moments, I guess it’s just another day in amazing Africa.